Political parties in Russia are becoming a thing of the past

20.06.2013

The formation of the Russian Popular Front (RPF) could be a positive development in Russian politics. While it is clear that Russia still lacks a full-fledged multiparty system, the fact is that such systems are in crisis elsewhere in the world. Traditional political parties are growing increasingly inadequate and outmoded. Their time has passed.

The formation of the Russian Popular Front (RPF) could be a positive development in Russian politics. While it is clear that Russia still lacks a full-fledged multiparty system, the fact is that such systems are in crisis elsewhere in the world. Traditional political parties are growing increasingly inadequate and outmoded. Their time has passed.

Political parties are showing themselves to be less and less capable of meeting current challenges in the majority of countries, particularly economically advanced democracies with diversified social structures. At some stage, parties become an obstacle to the further development of democratic institutions, and this is why the world is looking for new forms of social and economic advancement. Broad-based civil-political movements like the RPF have a good chance of winning out over political parties in the future, because they are founded on broader principles and do not insist that their members obey a few rigid precepts. These movements are, as a rule, more tolerant and accept members with diverse political views, who may agree on some points and differ on others – something that political parties rule out in principle. This is a modern, flexible and tolerant system of socio-political organization. It is more in tune with 21st century standards. People today hold nuanced views, making it difficult to corral them into political parties.

Political parties are specially designed tools for gaining power. But not all people are interested in power. There are people who simply want to see concrete improvements in their country, region, or city. Political parties are ill-suited for this task. There is simply too much hypocrisy and cynicism in party systems. It is much easier for organizations without political agendas to achieve these things.

The formation of civil-political movements of this kind is a global trend. There is the example of the Solidarity union in Poland, which created a broad democratic movement that changed the world, but never became a political party. Indeed, it would not have been able to achieve as much as a political party. Many Western political parties, including those in the United States, resemble civil-political movements. They mobilize during election campaigns, while maintaining only core staff between ballots. During elections, they support the most electable candidates rather than their own members. Certainly there are some analogies with Organizing for Action, the political advocacy group that was spun off from Obama’s reelection campaign.

Political parties are no longer able to drive large numbers of people to take to the streets. Civil-political movements can, and this makes them useful in political battle, during elections, or as part of a larger social movement. But the continued rise of such movements is far from guaranteed. The RPF may be formalized or dropped altogether. But it would be wrong to adapt it to the needs of just one person, Vladimir Putin, no matter how great a leader he may seem today. What really needed are ideas and values – broad, flexible and tolerant – to rally the RPF. As an image and a brand, Putin has truly outgrown all the political parties in Russia today. He has wider reach as an individual than any political party, and so his reliance on any of them would undermine his own electoral and political prospects.

For the RPF, too, being tied to just one man constrains its opportunities, capabilities and influence. This movement is heading in the right direction. But how it makes use of its potential remains to be seen. Any number of things could go wrong. There is a long list of undertakings in Russia which started on the right track before veering off course. Hopefully, this will not happen, because in that case Russia will find itself back in the old multiparty system and on the sidelines of modern political evolution.

It always seemed that Russia would not succeed in creating a multiparty system, that it would miss the boat. Twenty years of attempts to form something resembling a multiparty system have been a waste of time. Had a system of civil-political movements formed in the wake of the movements spawned in the 1990s, the Russian political system and the country as a whole would be completely different now. But the whole thing degenerated into interparty intrigue, cash handouts, and divvying up the budget. In this sense, the past twenty years are lost.

The transition to new forms of organization is a worldwide trend fostered by the globalization of civil society. It is good that Russia is riding this bandwagon. It will be interesting to see what contacts the RPF will establish with civil society in Russia and around the world. The NGO law, for example, may prove a problem both for the RPF and its constituent organizations, limiting Russia’s international influence as a result.

If you want to conquer, try to lead

One of the biggest problems in Russian society today is its shocking level of disunity. This fragmentation is extremely dangerous given the existing ethnic boundaries and differences in Russia as well as the “with us or against us” mentality that has dominated Russia’s past. The RPF must try to start a national dialogue and find some common ground for all people to stand on, despite differences in views on the national political system, Putin, Communists, Stalin, or Ivan the Terrible. They ought to create a platform for people to come together and hammer out a common position which could be conveyed to the government undistorted, and elicit a clear reply that would not have to filter down through layers of bureaucracy.

To join the RPF, you don’t have to be recommended by an old Bolshevik, like in the Soviet Union. This opens the way for the opposition to participate in the RPF, to pursue dialogue, formulate positions, and influence people who in turn will influence the government. The opposition and the RPF are not on opposite sides of the barricades, particularly now that the latter is not constrained by any party program. It would be wrong to start the process of forming an organization by devising its program. The program should come much later, in the course of discussions. Programs are soon forgotten. No one reads them and their authors themselves tend to abandon them. No single person today is able to write a program for a movement or a front capable of bringing together millions of followers. If you want to conquer, try to lead, as they say in Russia.

The RPF and United Russia

The absence of Dmitry Medvedev and government ministers from the RPF constituent congress the other day was the right move. After all, the ministers have a different agenda: they carry out tasks in the economic and political spheres. The head of government should not attend a constituent congress. This could give the event unnecessary political undertones, and it would have been misunderstood by the main political party, United Russia, which Medvedev leads.

The RPF and United Russia are tackling different challenges. A party properly conceived and built is a tool of political competition. A front is a more flexible, tolerant, powerful and potentially much larger organization operating at the general federal level, whereas a political party must work in concrete political structures and withdraw from any apolitical sphere. They have a field for cooperation, but their field for confrontation and for the battle to win hearts and minds is much wider. The Popular Front has a chance to win this battle because currently United Russia is not in its best shape intellectually. It has no brilliant ideas to offer. What United Russia proposed as a unifying idea was unable to attract any discernible majority. The logical way out of this predicament is to rely on the levers of power at their disposal, which United Russia has done in the past. Quite possibly, the RPF will not let the party use these levers any longer. But the real battle will be on the ideological field. The intellectual impotence of the Russian elite is clear, so whoever puts forward effective ideas and a plan to implement them will win. If United Russia unexpectedly wins this battle, the RPF will serve little purpose.

Nikolai Zlobin is President and Founder of the Center on Global Interests in Washington, D.C., and a member of the Valdai Discussion Club.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.